Childhood Is

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Childhood is fleeting.

The days rush by like subway trains as I stand at the station feeling the rush of air as another one departs.

The hundreds of thousands of inhales and exhales propel me through this life powerless as they grow up before my eyes.

Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Inhaleexhaleinhaleexhale…

Sometimes I have the wisdom to slow my breath and take in the moment that I have right now.

Right now with them as they are.

Not the babies they were and not the grown ups I hope they grow to be.

Who they are right now. Where we are right now. Feet in the sand, head turned to the blue expanse of sky.

I inhale their laughter, their sobs, their smell, their bodies in perpetual motion.

I exhale my worry, my doubt, my rush to think about what’s next.

For childhood is precious and meant to be savored one moment at a time.

 

 

Never Grow Up

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As they  wheeled my grandmother into surgery, over 15 years ago, she held my hand and squeezed it hard. She, an impossibly strong woman seeming impossibly small, looked up at me and said quite frankly, “Don’t get old. Do you hear me? Just don’t do it.”  There was no sadness to it or rationality even. There was nothing to do but nod and watch her disappear behind the enormous, cold metal doors.

There is nothing more human than mortality. We will die. Those we love will die. It is a knowledge that resides in our bones as we move through our days. Growing up is progress, but it is also a reminder that our days here are numbered. Yet, somehow there is comfort in knowing that all us humans are in it together, riding the ups and downs of life until the ride jerks to an end and we have to get off.

I hear the words of the older and wiser in my life.

” Time flies.”

Yes I know.

“Before you know it they will be in college.”

Yes I know.

“How did I get this old?”

I don’t know.  (Will I blink and be that old too?)

But no matter how hard it is to deal with the reality of today, there is no use holding on to the past with white-knuckled passion.

Might as well open my hands to receive all that these precious moments of childhood have to give.

 

 

 

The Value of Homework

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Talk to any parent of a school age child, especially on a weekday (or Sunday night), and the subject of homework is bound to work its way into conversation.

An article recently came out about extensive research that showed clear evidence that elementary students reap nearly no benefit from homework. But for many parents, this was just official confirmation of what they already knew.

The intention of homework is often stated as reinforcement of skills learned in class. That purpose itself is problematic.

Every child in every class does not need the same level of reinforcement assigned across the entire class  after every lesson. Some children do not need to do nightly, monotonous spelling assignments to score 100% on the spelling test, while some children can do spelling homework until they are blue in the face and never score above a 70.

Many children are avid readers and do not need the burden of a reading log or endless comprehension questions slowing them down. Many other children just need someone to read to them and talk to them more to increase their access to positive literacy experiences.

When  I snapped the photo today of my  sons helping me prepare vegetables for a stir fry dinner, the irony of the word “homework” struck me. Perhaps what children need most is less homework in the traditional worksheet or book report sense and more home work or housework. In trying to keep up with the modern obsession with perfection, many parents outsource house work rather than go the traditional route of assigning chores to their children. Too many children have become so disconnected from the concept of work in the home and that leads to the same disconnect when they get out into the world.

A landscaping company comes to upkeep the perfect lawn. A cleaning service comes to upkeep the perfect house. A company comes to open and close the perfect pool. Painters, plumbers, roofers, ….you name it.  All so that parents can free up time to upkeep the perfect body at the salon or gym or to work long enough hours to pay for all of those expenses.

It is more common to buy food or eat out than to grow food in the backyard where kids can be a part of the process that gets food on the table. Heck, so many American families rarely even make it to the table together due to endless activities and sports practices that often start at age 4.

As a result, work becomes something arbitrarily assigned by an authority figure, rather than something integral to daily life. Our children become input/output machines and then the teachers in the upper grades and later employers lament the lack of problem solving skills and work ethic in the younger generations.  Companies have made fortunes on convincing consumers that life was hard and that we needed a plethora of products and services to make it easier. But actually, the answer is easy and cheap.

Bring back home work in the traditional sense. Turn off the website that drills math skills and put down the spelling lists. Take the time to reinforce life skills and a sense of responsibility. Imagine the potential such a simple shift could have on the typical American family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Highly Personal Decision

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Politics.

Activism.

Social Change.

Since my high school days, these are the things that have excited and inspired me.

During my freshman year of high school, I read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by, Dee Brown and found the band Rage Against the Machine not long after. I was shocked by the accounts of how the American government dealt with Native American tribes and fascinated by the sheer anger in lead singer Zach de la Rocha’s voice. His lyrics told a story that ran against everything that I had learned and the rage to make me believe it had to be true.

I wrote a lot of poetry in my teenage years and read even more books. My parents were not really into traveling (the farthest we traveled was Florida every year to visit my grandparents), so I fed my wanderlust with books like The Dharma Bums by, Jack Kerouac and A Clockwork Orange by, Anthony Burgess.

In college, my world view continued to open up, though through literature instead of travel as my parents vetoed my desires to study abroad. I started taking classes in World Literature and minored in Politics all while pursuing my passion for photography in the darkroom at Rutgers that is now extinct.

Then I stumbled upon Bruce Robbins, a professor whose interest in the place where literature and politics collide fueled my own leanings in that direction. As a senior, Bruce served as my adviser for my Honors Thesis, which was an exploration into whether books could use text and photography to achieve real social change. This was not just a scholarly pursuit, but also a very personal one. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do after graduation. I loved college. I loved the reading, the thinking, the arguing, and the writing. But would delving into issues of inequality and poverty intellectually be satisfying enough for me? Would I be able to change the world that way?

Well, my Honors Thesis took me into flophouses in Manhattan and led me to interview David Isay the creator of NPR’s StoryCorps, a project that records the amazing (and often lost) histories of everyday people. But it wasn’t my Thesis that led me to my next move. It was a poster. The poster was recruiting college graduates to apply to Teach for America. I read the statistic at the bottom about how children in poverty are reading an average of 2/3 grade levels behind their wealthier peers. But I think it was the photograph of a young African-American boy looking back at me with big eyes that drove me to head to the computer lab and find out how to apply. That poster, in an instant, achieved social change. My dream of getting a PhD. at Harvard fell dead on the ground behind me, and since then I have only glanced back at that dream a few times.

The story here gets more complicated, emotional, and well…long. So I will zoom ahead, past my 12 years of inner city and suburban teaching experience, through the births of my four children to this summer when I finally decided to turn my back on public school for awhile to homeschool my children.

Those of you who follow my blog know how hard I fought against testing and for quality, dynamic, and developmentally-stimulating education. You read my editorials, speeches, petitions, and pleas. You know I fought and fought hard.

My decision to homeschool was not a giving up on public schools as one teacher recently accused me of, but rather a giving in to my children and their needs and fulfillment. For many years, I worried about the world, now it is time for me to focus on my children. I believe that by giving them the best that they will in turn affect the world for the better. In just a short 10 years my oldest will be 18. And judging from what I hear from those parents who have gone through it, I too will wonder where the time went.

My decision to homeschool is a highly personal decision, not to give up on quality education for all, but to give in and commit myself to giving that gift to my own children while I can. There will be time to return to that bigger fight.

But for now, I will focus on them. I will honor my short time with them and give them every bit of what I want to give to all children. I will stop thinking about what I wish public schools would do and just do them without fight or argument. I will appreciate my opportunity to take this time with my children, knowing that one day (in the blink of an eye) it will be over, and then I can return to trying to solve the world’s problems.

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The Importance of Being “SOOPR MOM”

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The more involved I get in education reform, the deeper I get into politics and the further I see schools getting away from the best interests of children.

My son, who is in kindergarten, made this for me the other day in school. In fact nearly everyday, he comes home and pulls out a small squarish folded up piece of paper with a picture for me. It usually says, “SIMONMOM,” but he is coming along with his writing abilities. It shows how even at school, in the middle of all of the hustle and bustle, he is thinking about me.

I guess this is a perfect metaphor for why I have been relentless in fighting back against the PARCC and against people in positions of power that have clearly forgotten what it is like to be a parent of a young child. Truly education reform and the people driving it have lost touch with the wonder of childhood.

The children, for the most part, have no idea that the adults are fighting around them (except maybe those fortunate few whose parents have turned this fight into a civics lesson for them). They have no idea that when they enter their name into a computer that some company is collecting data about them that one day will turn into a profit.They have no idea that the test their teachers are proctoring was not made by those teachers, will not be graded by those teachers, and are in many cases not supported by those teachers. The very same teachers who are with them day in and day out taking care of them academically, socially, emotionally and more. They have no idea that their parents and grandparents did not have the pressures in school that are now the norm today. They have no idea that there may very well be a better way to learn.

Why?

Because they trust us.

The other day I watched my 5 year-old son run ahead of me and into the street. Thankfully no cars were coming, but I still pulled him aside and explained how dangerous it was to run out like that without looking both ways at least. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Well I knew you were watching, so I didn’t have to look.”  But what if I wasn’t watching and luck wasn’t in our favor?

The state of education today is a direct result of parents not watching. The more I watch the more I notice how so many others are not. It is not that parents don’t care, because I believe that the vast majority of parents want nothing but the best for their children. Yet, caring is not the same as watching and holding administrators, board members, city council members, local, state, and national politicians accountable. The Open Public Records Act is a powerful law, but only if people use it. Public hearings are pointless if the public is not informed. Politicians and other leaders will not listen if they know that no one is watching.

Every time I read an article about the PARCC test failing I think about how it NEVER should have been implemented across the entire state in the first year. The amount of money spent on this test is truly revolting as a recent article estimated that NJ will spend 22.1 million dollars on the PARCC test just this year. This doesn’t count the technology and training expenses that happened prior to the start of this test.

There will be no winners. Even if the anti-PARCC movement succeeds (as I believe that it will), there are still many people who will walk away from it with fatter pockets. Though in my heart of hearts I want to demand that the companies hand as much of that money as possible back to our schools and for those politicians who refused to listen to the criticisms of the public who elects them to lose their jobs, I will be satisfied if parents learn one lesson.

We need to be the superheroes our children trust us to be. We must constantly remain vigilant about what we allow to occur in education. For when we do not watch for villains, our children suffer. The PARCC is just one episode of an ongoing saga of good against evil playing out in our public schools.

Who Isn’t Refusing the PARCC?

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This image might look familiar to you. Many have been changing their profile picture to show solidarity in the grassroots movement to refuse the high stakes PARCC test. This simple act will empower many to have the courage to compose and submit their refusal letter, even if they feel like they are the only ones in their town. There is power in numbers . This is an easy way to visually show the number of supporters and to increase their reach and power.

The refusal movement is growing and with the PARCC set to start tomorrow, the numbers will only rise. Though many of us have been working tirelessly to get the word out, many parents remain uninformed. Of course there are some who are informed and will choose not to refuse the test for their children.Perhaps they feel that the test is just another test. Or maybe they know their child will do well, and therefore it doesn’t bother them. Or even they may think the test is good practice for life. My goal is not to diminish their reasons, but to point out that their choice is an informed choice.

What about the overwhelming number of parents out there who are just simply not informed or misinformed?

Many school districts across the state have held information nights to present the parents with all of the wonderful benefits of the revolutionary PARCC test. If a parent does not have an education background and has faith in their schools, it would be easy after sitting through such a presentation to feel good about this new test. Who wouldn’t want a test that can really help the teachers and parents understand the needs of their children and get every child to be career and college read? Sounds great! And what’s more modern than a Chromebook? Technology is the way of the future, so why not prepare students for the future?

But let’s face it, the PARCC test, or any test standardized or not, does not have the power to do what supporters claim it can do.

Tests don’t level playing fields. Tests don’t make anyone ready for any career or college. Tests don’t tell parents or teachers what a child needs or doesn’t need. To achieve those goals you need human interaction by way of teaching, listening, conversing, and working.

However the PARCC test has:

  • reduced the amount of time and resources spent on science and social studies in the elementary school.
  • strained local school budgets to allow for the purchase of technology (namely Chromebooks) and PARCC-related training.
  • caused physical damage by requiring students as young as 8 years old to type and stare into computer screens for extended amounts of time.
  • caused anxiety in students and teachers by placing increased stress on testing.
  • caused schools to cancel meaningful and relevant assessments such as midterms and finals in high school and authentic assessments in lower grades.
  • reduced the time teachers have to teach yet increased the amount and pace of learning.
  • given many students an unwarranted feeling of failure.
  • caused schools to cancel field trips.

I could go on, but I won’t. Instead consider that if even half of this is true, then why aren’t droves of parents refusing? Well, if you set aside those who truly are informed and have decided to push ahead with the test, there are many others to consider.

Let’s face it. The most parent participation in school happens at the kindergarten level. Then it slowly tapers off until junior year of high school when parents become worried about the college application process. Perhaps one problem this whole mess has revealed is that the days of just blindly trusting schools to do what is right for our children are over. We all need to be active, informed participants in our schools, even if that means giving up some of the time suckers that we all know and love (Netflix, stupid video games on our phones, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram, etc.)  Because a distracted populace is one that is easily manipulated.

Secondly, consider the fact that the obsession with high stakes testing started way back in 2001 with the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The majority of schools escaped feeling any pressure because the threshold for achieving Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) was so low. What this means is that if a school had a subgroup population such as special education or Hispanic not meet the required mark, all the school had to do was show that group improved marginally the next year. It became okay that they failed, so long as they just failed a little less. I have sat through presentations where our principal broke down exactly how many kids had to pass to make AYP, and it was shocking how few.

Schools even went so far as to cater to kids who fit into more than one subgroup population (African-American and special education, or low-income and Hispanic) and make sure that they had priority for any special extra help classes.

However, schools in high poverty areas were hit the hardest. They were threatened by state takeovers. Administrators were afraid to lose their jobs, which too often came with lucrative opportunities for easy corruption. Inner city children have been suffering in schools dominated by test preparation for years. Sure the PARCC test takes it to a new level, but the damaging effects of high stakes testing have a long track record in this country.

Where was this movement in 2001, 2005, 2008?

One teacher reached out to me and asked me to write about the kids whose parents have no idea that they can refuse the test. In her diverse elementary class, the kids refusing come from affluent, educated families.The kids in her class from families with low socioeconomic status, uneducated parents, or recent immigrants are left to suffer through the test, while the other half of the class gets to go hang out in the library and read books. The worst part is that the teacher feels pressure not to encourage test refusal, so when the test begins she will have to bite her tongue and watch her lowest performing students suffer through a test that many believe has been proven developmentally inappropriate.

So while we celebrate the success of this grassroots movement, we should remember those children who must suffer through this test not because their parents chose for them to take it or because their teacher thinks it is a good idea. They will do so because their parents are uninformed or misinformed, and once again they will be left behind.

In the Blink of an Eye

I remember the moment when I first looked into the eyes of of my first baby. His eyes black as night peered at me from under the blanket draped over us, Barely wiped down from the messy miracle of birth, he was placed against my bare chest. We could have been anywhere at all. In a cab. In a meadow. On the moon. Those eyes were all that I saw, the only things in the world, besides his soft heartbeat against my chest.

It’s easy to forget the wonder of that moment in the rush of everyday life. The lunchboxes to pack. The homework to complete. The papers to sign and return. The toys on the floor. The dishes in the sink. The laundry, the laundry, the laundry. But yet it is a wonder that we adults should never take for granted.

When I was pregnant with my first baby, the first ultrasound was incredible. I had never seen anything like it. The grossness of a transvaginal ultrasound (sorry fellas but reading those words is much easier than going through one) suddenly didn’t matter when the little flicker of the heartbeat came into focus on the screen. That was my baby growing inside of me.

By the third ultrasound, I was obsessed with them. I carried the pictures with me everywhere and stared at them in awe. Ultrasounds were the coolest things in the world. I remarked once to the technician, at the 6 month ultrasound for my second baby, that she must have one of the best jobs in the world. To which she replied, “Yes, when the baby is healthy.” I felt my heart drop into the pit of my stomach.

My first pregnancy and delivery had gone without a hitch. I had no reason to think about complications. I was so lucky, and I never even thought twice about it. Of course the technician’s job wasn’t all declaring with glee, “It’s a boy”, or “It’s a girl.” Sometimes there was no heartbeat. No heartbeat. I couldn’t imagine, but in that moment of awkward silence I was forced to.

I had no way of knowing that that baby inside me that day would be born prematurely. I had no idea that I would be rushed for an emergency C-section and that I wouldn’t hear him cry when he was born, because he had trouble breathing and was rushed from the room. I had no idea that I wouldn’t hold him for over 24 hours after birth, or that I would learn to nurse him with an IV sticking out of his scalp.

Thankfully, he was okay after a few days in the NICU and was able to come home with us from the hospital. Though, I met many parents that were not so fortunate.

Now my first baby is 7 years old and my second is 5. I don’t know where the time goes, but I know it goes quickly. Just talk to any parent of a child about to graduate high school, and they will tell you that it feels like just yesterday that they were putting their child on the bus to kindergarten.

Testing starts on Monday in our town and across much of New Jersey. And I think what bothers me the most is the precious time that is being wasted. Ask parents what they want for their children more than anything in the world and few will reply high test scores, but many will say that they want their children to be happy.

Why make school feel like work?

Children are in school a fleeting 13 years (not counting college, if they attend). The current life expectancy in the U.S. is 79 years old. They will spend the vast majority of their lives working. Of course we all hope our children love their occupations, but the reality is that many adults do not.

Why not invest the time, energy, and money wasted on testing our children to death and spend it on making the 13 years of school more inspiring, engaging, and full of learning driven by discovery and doing instead of receiving? The test makers claim that their tests make education more rigorous and prepare children for college and careers. Well, I think rigor comes from teaching, thinking,and applying knowledge to actual tasks and projects not from tests.

Children best prepared for the world spend time in it from a young age. You want to prepare children for college and careers, improve the foreign language programs in America that are grossly lacking compared to other countries. Take the children on more trips to see their town, state, country, and world. Sure, have the children analyze text, but then instead of answering questions on the computer, ask them to take what they learned and DO something with that knowledge.

They could write and deliver a persuasive speech. Participate in a debate. Create an advertisement. Draw a comic strip. Design a lesson about what they read and teach it to the class. Write and illustrate a children’s book about it. Research other points of view and compare and contrast them. Start a service learning project to make real progress towards solving a problem they read about.

Those activities require higher order thinking skills and demonstrate rigor much more than a test with multiple choice, short answers or even a complex essay. Yet those activities are being cut from teacher lesson plans in favor of more and more worksheets to “get through” the demands of the Common Core and more and more test prep to prepare for tests that are tied to teachers’ livelihood.

On Monday, the test will begin and the clock will keep ticking. Ticking off the minutes they have to complete each section. Ticking off minutes for short breaks. Ticking off the minutes until school is over and they can finally run free. Ticking off minutes of their childhood that they will not get back, even if the PARCC test is thrown out in a year or two.

In the blink of an eye, a piece of their precious childhood will be wasted.

And all of us are to blame.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.

My parents and I with my second son in the NICU.